Recently, Pravind Jugnauth, the Prime Minister of Mauritius, stated that we are in a “situation de guerre”. Indeed, we are fighting an invisible enemy, a virus that is sweeping across the world. We have a global problem with huge consequences.
Information and data on the novel coronavirus or Covid-19, is overwhelming. I am therefore not going to delve into the virus itself, but rather on a planned action to contain the virus. During war time, political parties and politicians put their differences aside and work for the betterment of the country. In the case of Mauritius, there is now a consensus that the enemy has to be contained.
It is easy to criticize but governing a nation during a crisis is another matter. Here are some realities. Mauritius is an island, isolated in the middle of the ocean, with limited resources and expertise. If we look at the health care system alone, one would understand how far the limitations are – from hygiene in hospitals to poor health care management and insufficient medical equipment. A year ago, no one could see this coming. The world was caught by surprise a few months ago, and now each nation is rallying to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus.
How much can you prepare for a pandemic? When SARS broke out a few years ago I was in Canada. It took Canada by surprise, the country was not ready for a pandemic. SARS was a wake-up call for many. Canada, with its resources and expertise, launched a public education campaign and put together a program for action for future outbreaks. It led the world and became a model for public health and preparedness. Canada learnt from SARS and is today managing the novel coronavirus quite efficiently. Crisis management is a skill.
In Mauritius, the government has taken the bull by its horn and is implementing an action plan to contain the spread of the virus. In spite of the limitations, it is trying to get hold of the problem. It does not have the expertise of Canada, but has observed how other nations are dealing with the virus. It is now documented that China, where the coronavirus started, took draconian measures, using a military approach to “lock down” the country. Harsh, as it may seem to some, containment worked. The discipline and leadership of the Chinese are commendable. Unlike some European countries, which hesitated at the beginning for a complete shutdown, are now paying a heavy price.
What did not work for others may work for Mauritius. The government has been lukewarm initially in its response, but acted swiftly when it mattered. Drawing from the Chinese experience and some extent what India tried with a national curfew, Mauritius is now in a lockdown, with an imposed curfew until 2 April 2020.
It is clear that containment is the most realistic way to stop the spread of the virus. For it to work, as it did in China, it requires two important layers. First, the government and its institutions must be in full control to make sure there is absolute containment. Second, the population must understand the meaning of lockdown and confine itself. One without the other will not be productive. Mauritius was forced to impose a curfew, because the response from the people was not what was expected. Imposing a curfew is not a draconian measure, nor is it an infringement of human rights. Here, it is done to protect the entire population. Therefore, critics should be a bit more palatable. While a lockdown should have come earlier, it is still in the right direction.
If we follow the World Health Organization (WHO) and its forecasts and examine the trend, the novel coronavirus will spread to reach its peak in Mauritius in the next few weeks. Therefore, the number of positive cases and even number of death is likely to increase. It is scary but real. While the government has taken a pro-active approach, there are some important gaps that are necessary to deal with the projected scenario. It was a wise move to seek help from abroad, and the request for medical supplies from China, will relieve the medical services and the hospitals. A public education campaign must start immediately. A few advertisements and leaflets will not sensitize the population. This is new to Mauritius. I recommend the Canadian model for public health campaign. Use the current crisis to build a better approach to health and hygiene. Communication at the time of a crisis is important to keep the population informed. A well-coordinated approach with relevant information is needed to build faith and trust.
Managing a crisis of this proportion is complex and it will overburden any system. Even the rich economies are having difficulty coping. For the immediate, Mauritius should be setting short term goals and get a firm grip of the situation. The curfew will give an opportunity to assess the crisis and the response. If cases continue to rise, it should not create panic. People should be prepared for this. The message should be simple: it will get worse before it gets better. With this mind, a massive public education campaign should be underway.
The government is responding the best way it can. It is inventing the wheel as it is going along, and learning from others, there will be obstacles, pains and criticisms. But it has taken the right decision to impose a curfew. However, the public should play its part. Perhaps, this a moment for reflection for many as they cope with the curfew and lockdown. We have to think for the good of the people and take collective measures to overcome this crisis. It is a time to unite and show solidarity, rather than seek perfection.